Millvina Dean was just nine weeks old when the Belfast-built ocean liner R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912, killing 1,512 passengers and crew, including her own father. That was almost 100 years ago now.
But Dean survived along with her mother, Eva Georgetta Dean, and her brother, Bertram Vere Dean. Although for most of her life she shunned her association with the disaster, as she grew older she began to make occasional public appearances to talk about what it had meant to the life of her own family.
On May 31, 2009, aged 97, Dean died in her sleep at Woodlands Ridge Nursing Home in Southampton, England, and the last living link to that unforgettable journey passed with her.
Although the great ship would never reach its final destination, this month the Titanic has finally docked in New York City in spirit. Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition just opened at the Discovery Times Square Exposition Center last weekend for a limited time only.
Located on 44th Street in the heart of Times Square, the 12,500 square feet exhibition features the largest collection of Titanic artifacts ever assembled in the world. Indeed, many of the items are on display for the first time, having been recovered 12,460 feet below the surface of the ocean over the last two decades.
Included are 281 evocative artifacts recovered from the Titanic's final resting place, and these are now displayed in a series of galleries that trace the short life of the so-called unsinkable ship.
Wisely, the exhibition doesn’t just focus on the sinking, but also on the everyday stories of the people like Millvina Dean who managed to live through the tragic incident.
Poignantly too, the exhibition also reflects on the 1,512 people who lost their lives that night, giving a wrenching sense of some of the horror they must have experienced in their final moments.
In keeping with the actual 1912 voyage, exhibition visitors are issued with boarding passes before climbing onto the gangplank to enter the exhibit. Each pass includes the name of a passenger and details about his or her voyage. At the end of the exhibit, you can find out, with a sigh or a shiver, if you survived.
In the last seven expeditions to the Titanic’s north Atlantic resting place, divers have salvaged a great deal of the treasures of the luxury liner, including a startlingly well-preserved bowler hat, perfume vials that still contain scent, and the base of the grand staircase’s cherub, a surprisingly cheerful looking thing, giving no indication of the fate that awaited it.
In the main exhibit the massive construction of the ship in Belfast in 1909 (it took 10,000 workers and three years to build it) is recounted, as are the details of how, in less than two days before its scheduled docking in New York, it was slashed open by a drifting iceberg (they have even included ice to give you a sense of how brutally cold the sea water was when passengers plunged into it in an attempt to escape the sinking ship).
The exhibit also outlines how many of the artifacts were discovered and brought to the surface in expedition after expedition over the last seven years.
One of the most show stopping experiences of the new exhibit is the recreation of the Titanic’s grand staircase, reproduced to its original scale. You can get a very clear sense of the drama and majesty of the ship itself from simply looking at it, as well as from the reproduction of a small third-class cabin with its modest set of bunk beds, set against that of the spacious first-class cabin complete with stained glass windows and upholstered furniture, a study in contrasts that tells a tale in itself.
When Millvina Dean’s father heard the ship slam into the iceberg on that fateful night, he investigated what happened and ordered his family to board lifeboat No. 13, while he stayed behind to take his chances.
“If my dad wasn’t so quick, we wouldn’t have survived,” Dean recalled before her death in May. “A lot of people in steerage didn't survive.”
Tickets to Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition are available online at www.titanictix.com.